March 2011

Image: Appearances Soft Sculpture

In the handcrafted work of Rodarte, MOCA sees much more than runway style  by BOOTH MOORE

In the six years since Pasadena-based sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy launched their label, Rodarte, they have shifted the image of California fashion from mass market to arts and crafts. They’ve also become art-world darlings, as likely to appear in the pages of Artforum as Vogue.

Their collections are based on elaborate narratives, with references as far-reaching as the Golden State itself, including Ming vases, 1970s interiors,interior photographs by Stephen Shore, wild condors and redwoods. And their clothes aren’t so much designed as they are hand-built and hand-destroyed assemblages of braided twine, pulled wool, sandpapered linen, burned cheesecloth and silk tulle dyed red as an homage to Japanese horror films.

And this is exactly why Jeffrey Deitch wanted a Rodarte exhibition from his very first day as director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art this past June. “Seeing their clothing worn by friends and attending one of their fashion shows in New York last February, I realized this is sculpture, not just fashion,” Deitch says. “I’m very interested in people who are approaching art from outside the conventions of the art world.” He points to MOCA ’s recent installation devoted to the new-wave band Devo and the 2009 exhibition at his former Manhattan gallery, Deitch Projects,of work by designer and artist Stephen Sprouse.

Rodarte: States of Matter, on view at MOCA ’s Pacific Design Center satellite through June 5, features more than 20 pieces from past and present runwaycollections, along with ballet costumes created by the designers for the Oscar-nominated Black Swan. The garments are displayed as sculptural objects suspended from the ceiling in a series of vignettes—some static, others in motion.

“We wanted to create an experience, in the sense that the environment would affecthow you see the clothes,” says Laura. Among the pieces is an ethereal white nightgown of fraying lace and tattered cheesecloth, inspired by the Texas landscape the sisters encountered on a trip to Marfa. Another—a black dress made of metal lace, embroidered vinyl, feathers and cheesecloth—was based on the imagined taleof a woman who transforms into a California condor.

Rodarte is coming off quite a year. In 2010, the Mulleavys nabbed the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award, made their debut as big-screen costume designers and further found favor with the celeb set, dressing everyone from Chloë Sevigny to Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon to arts patron Dasha Zhukova. Still, they didn’tforesee a museum show coming. “We were quite shocked,” says Laura. “When Jeffrey called us, we said, ‘Are you sure?’”

Hometown celebrities at last.